By James Lemon
The much-anticipated ground invasion of Gaza has yet to materialise more than two weeks after Hamas’ brutal incursion into Israel on October 7.
A ground assault appeared imminent after the Israel Defence Forces sent 100,000 troops to the Gaza border during the first week of the conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly told US President Joe Biden “we have to go in”.
But by this week, IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus suggested there might be another way.
“The aim here is to totally dismantle Hamas from its military capabilities,” he told the ABC on Monday. “If that can be done from the air … with very limited exposure to our troops and less damage on the ground, that would be great.”
Conricus avoided landing on one side or the other – providing clarity about a ground invasion was not good military practice, he said – but there are a number of reasons why an invasion that was expected within days of October 7 has not yet happened.
In the days after the Hamas attack, Israel’s national security council said negotiation with Hamas was not an option.
Ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich demanded the IDF “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration”, which sparked fury among the families of those who had been taken.
By this week, however, reports emerged that the US had advised Israel to delay a ground invasion to provide more time for hostage negotiations, among other reasons.
Despite Israeli reluctance, Qatar has sought to position itself as a mediator and was involved, along with Egypt, in the release of those who have been returned.
The first two hostages to make it home were Israeli-Americans and there were suggestions on Tuesday that the release of as many as 50 dual citizens was imminent.
Fear of escalation
Major Western nations came out almost immediately after Hamas’ terrorist attack to support Israel’s right to defend itself. A joint statement from Biden and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy reaffirmed that belief this week, but also to a commitment to work diplomatically to stop the conflict from spreading.
Saudi Arabia was close to normalising diplomatic ties with Israel before Hamas attacked. Its main rival in the region, Iran, was accused of helping plan the October 7 attack, a claim it has strongly denied.
Iran backs a number of militant groups in the region including Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has been trading fire across the Israeli-Lebanon border since the conflict began. Hezbollah has said it would scale up its attacks from the north if Israel began a ground invasion of Gaza.
In response, Israel said it would retaliate aggressively and warned Lebanon not to let itself get dragged into a new war, referencing the month-long 2006 war with Hezbollah that ended in a tense stalemate.
London’s Telegraph reported on Tuesday that Netanyahu was delaying the invasion over concerns about securing the Lebanese border, and was at odds with IDF chiefs who were keen to move into Gaza.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told IDF personnel amassed near the Gaza border last week that he was ready to lead them into Hamas-controlled territory. “You see Gaza now from a distance, you will soon see it from inside. The command will come,” he said.
US troops in the region have also been fending off drone attacks from Iranian-backed groups and John Kirby, the US national security council spokesman, has drawn a clear link between those groups and the Iranian military.
The Biden administration is concerned that Israel does not have realistic goals in Gaza, and has leaned on its own experiences since 9/11 to highlight the difficulties of urban warfare, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have made clear that their goal is to eradicate Hamas to prevent it from ever harming Israeli citizens again.
The Times report says the Biden administration is concerned that the IDF has not yet presented a clear military plan that would achieve that goal.
Biden visited Tel Aviv last week to meet with Netanyahu and demonstrate his support for Israel but also warned against letting anger cloud judgment in a public speech.
“Justice must be done. But I caution this: while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” he said.
More coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict
- Cascading violence: Tremors from the Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have reached far beyond the border. But what would all-out war in the Middle East look like?
- The human cost: Hamas’ massacre in Israel has traumatised – and hardened – survivors. And in Gaza, neighbourhoods have become ghost cities.
- “Hamas metro”: Inside the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels, which the Palestinian militant group has commanded beneath war-ravaged Gaza for 16 years. The covert corridors have long provided essential channels for the movement of weapons and armed combatants.
- What is Hezbollah?: As fears of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Hamas steadily rise, all eyes are on the militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon and has been designated internationally as a terrorist group. How did it form and what does Iran have to do with it?
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